Leilani Dowding, a British model who appeared on the 2011 VH-1 reality series Tough Love Miami, has worn what may be the most offensive Native American Halloween costume we’ve seen.
Dowding posted photos of herself in the shocking outfit to her Facebook page. The garments and accessories are typically trivializing of a living culture that remains sacred to many Natives—as we’ve discussed often, the wearing of a warbonnet-style feather headdress on Halloween is appropriation of a deeply meaningful object for an essentially meaningless occasion.
With the makeup, though, Dowding has taken a run-of-the-mill offensive look to a new level of cultural and historical insult. Nearly half her face is covered in fake blood; a patch of the oozy red stuff runs from her hairline to her chin, and fingers of it drip down her neck and onto her chest.
In the photos’ caption, she provides an explanation of her getup, and a reassurance to some who might find the image disturbing:
“I just got massacred by a cowboy. Note Fur is FAKE!!!”
That’s right, she has dressed as Genocide for Halloween, and she wants her fans to know that no animals were harmed.
There’s a lot that can be said here, but we’ll stick to the obvious. There are some standard complaints about non-Natives dressing Native on Halloween or at costume parties. One is that the wearing of the headdress trivializes Native spirituality, which is still held sacred and practiced today. Another issue is that of “redface”—casually putting on a stereotypical (and inaccurate) outfit to become a caricature of a living race. It’s dehumanizing to the people being caricatured, and puts them on the level of—well, whatever else people are dressing as: superheroes, vampires, animals, cartoon characters, robots, sexy cheerleaders, naughty nurses, etc.
With the bloody wound, though, Dowding goes beyond that. This isn’t a matter of lightly and disrespectfully donning someone else’s culture on a lark. Rather, she has donned the shameful history of genocide against Indians, on a lark.
Would Dowding dress as a World War II-era European Jew wearing bullet-riddled concentration camp clothing and a Star of David? Would she dress as a Civi War-era African slave, and have her back made up to resemble open wounds from a slave-driver’s whip?
Perhaps it would be easier if she didn’t borrow anyone’s culture at all—Dowding, as it happens, is half Filipino. Perhaps she could dress as one of the children summarily executed by U.S. forces during the Philippine-American War (which ran from 1899-1902 and saw American soldiers slaughtering the Native population, running concentration camps, and administering water torture). In 1902, following a devastating attack on U.S. troops on the island of Samar, General Jacob H. Smith gave the order to “Kill everyone over 10.” Here’s what that looked like in an illustration in the New York Journal from May 5, 1902:
Talk about a great costume—that would really knock ’em dead at the party. So to speak. Well, there’s always next year.